Guardian of the Week: LTjg La’Shanda Holmes

This week’s Guardian of the Week post comes to us from Naval Air Station Whiting Field where history was made as Lieutenant (junior grade) La’Shanda Holmes had her wings pinned on and became the first African American female helicopter pilot in the United States Coast Guard.

Lt. Jeanine Menze, the first female, black pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard places a set of wings on Lt. j.g. La’Shanda Holmes, who became the first black female Coast Guard helicopter pilot during the Apr. 9 winging ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Ens. Ryan Trespalacios)

Lt. Jeanine Menze, the first African American female aviator in U.S. Coast Guard history pins a set of aviator wings on Lt. j.g. La’Shanda Holmes, who became the first African American female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard during an April 9, 2010 winging ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Ens. Ryan Trespalacios)

Post written by Jay Cope, NAS Whiting Field Public Affairs

Perseverance, dedication, grit, a desire to excel – these are all traits desired in a student aviator. Training in the aviation program for the maritime services is intentionally difficult to stress and push the students beyond their comfort zones so they can meet the hardships their service will entail. However, when that prospective pilot is slated to become a barrier breaker as well, those traits are not just desired, but necessary.

That Lt. j.g. La’Shanda Holmes had those traits was never in doubt. The humble, soft-spoken young woman had faced trials growing up in North Carolina that tested and tempered her desire to excel. When she walked across the stage April 9th to receive her wings as the first African-American female helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard, it was simply the next chapter of a proud story.

All Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard initial helicopter pilot training is performed at Naval Air Station Whiting Field through one of six squadrons attached to Training Air Wing FIVE. Holmes was attached to Helicopter Training Squadron EIGHTEEN for the final portion of her nearly two-year aviation training pipeline. She knew at the outset that she was the first black female to begin the training. While she admits to some periodic concerns about completing the program, there were really never any doubts harbored by the squadron commanding officer, Commander Mark Murray.

“I knew she would be successful. She had already overcome far greater challenges than flight school. I had the opportunity to do a familiarization flight with her, and where most folks might get a little frustrated, she drank it all in. She was eager to improve and I had no doubts she would do well,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Holmes family.

Photo courtesy of Holmes family.

Given her childhood, that might not normally be a safe assumption, but for Holmes, the hurdles she faced growing up drove her to try all that much harder.

“I was used to people telling me what I couldn’t do. We moved around a lot, and I think it fueled my ambition to live better and work harder. It just gave me more motivation to succeed,” she said.

Her trials started young. Holmes was just two when her mother committed suicide. She was adopted a short time later, but after her adoptive mother remarried, she states that she and her younger brother were placed in foster care due to abuse and were separated. She went through several homes until she landed with Linda and Edward Brown at 17. She still calls them her parents and they provided some necessary stability for her life.

Her hard work paid off even then graduating magna cum laude from high school and earning admission to Spelman College. Two years into her education there, she was assisting with a community service booth during a career day. Directly across from her was a Coast Guard recruiting booth. She wandered over after the event to speak with him conversation with Senior Chief Dexter Lindsey who inspired her to think about serving.

She applied for and was accepted into the College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative which financially enabled her to finish school. Prior to attending Officer Candidate School, she served on a Coast Guard cutter as an officer candidate and while near the bridge stuck up a conversation with the operations officer who advised her to consider aviation. It was then that she learned the Coast Guard had only one other black, female pilot, Lt. Jeanine Menze.

“It sounded challenging, but something I was up for,” Holmes said.

At that time, Menze was stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater flying the C-130 Hercules. Holmes was granted an opportunity to be temporarily stationed at Clearwater to learn about the aviation program, but it wasn’t until she was in the back seat of an SH-60 helicopter being flown by George Menze, Lt. Menze’s husband, that her future intentions kicked into place.

“We did hovering and flying low over the water. I was like a little kid. It was like nothing I had ever done or seen before. It was awesome,” she said. “Everyone in the aviation community was so close. There was a real sense of camaraderie that I wanted to be a part of. ”

That camaraderie certainly extends to the friendship between Menze and Holmes. They both share the same exuberant joy in flying and a similar appreciation for service in the Coast Guard. Menze called joining the Coast Guard the best decision she ever made, and sees a kindred spirit in Holmes.

“She’s so motivated to do well,” she said. “You put a thought into her head and she just runs with it. You tell her to work hard and study hard, and she goes and does it….I really expect big things from her.”

Menze is still a mentor to Holmes. She encouraged her through the process, gave her pep talks and let her know what to expect through flight training. The relationship is so close that Holmes asked Menze to present her pin during the winging ceremony.

She agreed and even presented Holmes with the first set of wings she received in 2005, following the ceremony. Menze thought of it as a memento to let her see that “dreams do come true.”

Photo courtesy of the Holmes family.

Photo courtesy of the Holmes family.

The winging ceremony was the culmination of nearly two years of hard work, and a lifetime of overcoming obstacles. For Holmes, having Menze there to share the occasion meant a great deal.

“It was a really emotional experience. Both of our eyes were watering and she asked me ‘Are you ready for this?’ I can’t think of a more awesome moment in my life.”

Holmes says things haven’t really hit home with her yet. For that day, she was just one of 18 new aviators. At her next duty station, she wants to be just another rookie pilot. She knows she is breaking a barrier, but doesn’t seem to think it really says anything special about her. She is transferring to Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles and wants the same things any young officer wants.

“I know I’m the first, but nothing has sunk in yet. People may have expectations, but for me, mainly, it is about taking on responsibility and knowing I have something to prove [as a pilot]. I just want to keep flying well and working hard to make my community, family and sisters proud of me.”

This story was reprinted with permission from Whiting Tower, the newsletter of Naval Air Station Whiting Field. Click here for the the latest issue of Whiting Tower including LTjg Holmes’ story.

Do you know someone in the Coast Guard that has done something great for the service, the missions or the public? Please submit your nominations for Guardian of the Week using the submit button at the top of the page.

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  • Jim Baker

    This is a wonderful and inspiring story. Congratulations to the new helicopter pilot – job well done. Linda and Edward Brown – you have earned a star in your heavenly crown. LTjg Holmes – good luck in Los Angeles and happy flying.

  • Charles Cheek

    Congratulations and a wonderful story of perserverance by Ltjg Holmes. The Coast Guard is one of the best organizations in the Federal Government. It presented opportunities to me when I was enlisted in 1967. Becoming the first African American to be assigned to St. Paul Island and the first African American instructor at Radioman’s school at Governor’s Island, NY. The Coast Guard is a tight knit family that incourages success.

  • Ron Nakamoto

    It’s great to see CSPI Officers doing great things, congrads!!

  • Ian Ainslie

    I agree with the other comments here – great inspirational story. A proud moment for the Holmes family :)

  • Cynthia E. Brooks

    I am the woman standing in the picture with LaShanda..her aunt and mom. As a single military officer, it was not easy raising LaShanda after my sister passed. My sister and I were very close. I am so proud of LaShanda’s accomplishments. At the same time, I am thankful that I had a huge influence in her life from age two on up. I was there for her when she missed her mother so much. I was there when she was sick. I sat up with her in the evening making sure she did her homework … correctly. I motivated her to read even though she hated to. However, it is evident that I have made some mistakes too. There is so much more to this very complicated story. Still in all, this is a very uplifting event for all who know and love LaShanda.

  • Wesley Kirk

    I’m very proud of you, keep up the good work and live your life. You and your family are in my prayers. I’m a formal Coasty (YN1)

  • shamaya

    good job lashanda keep up the good work love shamaya

  • Kitchenkop

    I am SO proud for you; I’m a 77-year-old great grandmother (white) and I am SO jealous of you. You’re not only beautiful but you’re my hero. Keep up the good work and I hope to hear lots about you for a long time.

  • Njbhunter

    Lt. J. G. Holmes, well done, young lady. I’m a Coastie mom – my son is on 720 SHERMAN – We are Coast Guard family, and though we have never met, La’Shanda, I am very proud of you! My congratulations to your parents Linda and Edward, your family and friends, and may God bless you all and God keep you safe. What a blessing and inspiration you have become. Incredible work well done!

  • Anonymous

    La’ Shanda, I just saw your interview out in Kali with MSNBC. I’ve shared that vid with many people who have teens and tweens. You had a lot of good things to say to them. Thank you for being a bright spot in your own way.

    Ms. Brooks, I’d say you guys have done a great job; hold your heads high.

    From your fellow retired female vet (USAF) in Alaska.

  • Connie hollomond

    Ms. Holmes, I saw you on an interview on Tv and kept wondering if the the girl had came to Emporia. The next day i was cleaning my desk at school and came across the article in the paper i had saved and realized that you were the same girl. I live in Emporia and am very proud of you. I attend church with your uncle. (George Carter
    You have an interesting story that proves you can do anything.
    Connie Hollomond
    Emporia, Va

  • Woody

    Congrats and Gods’ Speed.

    TCC William Davis
    USCG Retired

  • Fostermoma

    Mrs. Brooks, I thank you for all you’ve done for LaShanda.Being there for her when she needed a mother and thanks for being there when she was sick oh yes and helping her with her homework.These are things expected from a mother. But I was there after the abuse, I cryed with her, prayed with her even laughed with her in hopes that some of the pain would go away. So I guess we both have good memories of a place and time in her life.I pray that God will Bless and keep her safe and always be the Wind beneath her Wings, LaShanda we love you because of who you are, and you will always have a special place in our hearts . Love from your parents   and thank God for placeing you in our life.